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For years Zoos around the world have been facing an apparently unresolvable dilemma. It goes like this…

  1. Young people like visiting zoos, seeing the animals living there and learning about them. BUT…
  2. Many of the animals in Zoos are nocturnal which means they are only active at night… HOWEVER…
  3. Zoos are closed to the public at night . WHICH MEANS…
  4. Young people visiting zoos only get to see about half the creatures living there.

When London Zoo in Regents Park stopped to consider this problem a few years ago they came up with an innovative and exciting solution. They decided to open up the zoo at night, allow young people in to see the nocturnal animals and then let them sleep there. Apart from the excitement of spending the night surrounded by wild animals, the visitors would also have the privilege of seeing animals usually dormant during the day up and about and doing their thing.

The BedBUGS scheme was trailed at London Zoo in 2010 and wheeled out to the public this year. Since its inception over 600 young people have experienced the sleepover and last weekend it was the turn of the 1st St Margarets Cub Pack.

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The Cubs didn’t get into the Zoo until 7.00pm when all the other visitors had left. They were first taken to the Bug House where they would sleep. Although its name suggests that the place is full of insects - and there were plenty of them around, spiders, crickets, cockroaches, beetles and so on, the ‘Bug’ of Bug House is an acronym of ‘Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival’. With a variety of created environments like reefs, rainforests and river banks and creatures as diverse as jelly fish, snakes and birds the Bug House is a living demonstration of a profound fact. Remove human beings from the face of the earth and the world would survive and prosper. Remove the animals and we would all die and the planet with us.

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After settling in the Cubs got a chance to meet a red kneed tarantula called Polly. She was about the size of a pack of cards, covered with short black and ginger hair and surprisingly beautiful. She hunts by leaping onto her prey, sticking in her hollow, furry fangs and then pumping in venon. This liquefies the insides of the victim which Polly then sucks out like soup. Mmmm. Tasty! The only other flaw in her personality is her tendency to eat her various lovers.

It was at this point in the proceedings that Emma, the leader of the Sleepover Team showed us an insect trap. It was, she reported, a sad fact that one or two residents of the Bug House had escaped from their homes and there was a chance that we might encounter them in the course of the night. “Cockroaches mainly”, she said. “Nothing to worry about”, she said. While everyone set about not worrying Emma added that if anybody did see an escapee they should simply catch it in the trap so it could be returned to its rightful habitat in the morning. All of this went down very well with the Cubs. First a cannibalistic soup sucking spider, then cockroaches on the loose. Next? An adventure in the dark.

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It is very strange walking around the Zoo at night. Usually so noisy and busy in the daytime, now it was full of shadows and mystery and strange cries. Emma told the Cubs the deep booming noise they could hear was a lion called Lucifer who liked to strut his stuff after dark. The “who! who! who!” shout came from a Gibbon called Jimmy. This inspired one of the worst jokes in Cub history. People with a weak disposition may care to jump the next paragraph.

Who? Who? Who?
Jimmy the Gibbon!
Who? Who? Who?
Jimmy the Gibbon!

...repeat ad nauseum...

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Maybe it was the shadows that made the enclosures look as if they stretched all the way to Africa. Maybe it was the darkness that made the animals look so menacing when they suddenly appeared, pressing up against the glass separating us. Whatever the reason we knew that we were seeing them in their natural environment and on their own terms. The night was made for hunting and that night the Cubs of St Margarets were the prey.

On and on we went, down jungly passages and through echoing tunnels, passing wild pigs and porcupines, lions and tigers, owls and aardvarks, animals that burrowed underground and animals lived in trees. Without the guide’s torch we wouldn’t have seen them - but they could see us and approaching midnight they watched us go back to the Bug House for a story and then bed.

It was a relatively quiet night as quiet nights in a jungle go, broken by eerie screeches and howls and the “who!, who!” of Jimmy the Gibbon and the bass rumble of Lucifer the Lion. In the early hours someone spotted a large cockroach scurrying between the sleeping bags on the floor but that was soon captured while the Cubs slept on.

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About 6.30pm in the morning, as the nocturnal animals signed off for the night and the diurnal animals prepared for the day shift, the Cubs, diurnal creatures too, got up and went for breakfast. As the sun rose there was time to see some of the creatures the Cubs had missed the night before - the penguins in the new penguin pool, the meerkats, and the monkeys and lemurs in the Tropical Rainforest section - and then it was time to come home.

As we left we did the final roll call. There was one person missing.

Who? Who?
Jimmy the Gibbon!


Julie Felix - Mummy’s taking us to the Zoo tomorrow.


See a slideshow with more pictures on flickr

– from Martyn Day